chocolate bar

Chocolate: the industry’s hidden truth (and the easy stuff we can do to still enjoy it)

Well, folks, it’s that time of year again—the start of chocolate season. Halloween kicks it off, and it doesn’t really seem to end until Easter, forever months later. And I love chocolate, which is why I pull this post to the front every October.

If you spend four minutes with my younger kids, you will know that Halloween is around the corner. This is because they are children, and who wouldn’t love a holiday that involves dressing up like beloved characters or animals and collecting candy in a bag? Dress up plus sweets? Sign me up, they say.

Well, despite how I feel about the holiday (ahem—keeping a jar of candy each per kid; giving the rest away while we recover for the next three days), it’s a fun way to get out in the community, enjoy the fall, and create family memories. I just go with it.

But I’m gonna pull back the curtain behind the wizard here, and it’s one of those inconvenient truths that I wish we could ignore. But we can’t. Because friends, it’s real, it’s rampant, and not enough well-meaning families know about the reality behind their shiny-foiled wrappers.

The far majority of chocolate is in our stores because of forced child labor. And unless we tell the guilty companies that this isn’t okay, this will keep happening.

So this means that the majority of the chocolate candy in your kids’ Halloween bag will be because of child labor, and often child slavery. But this also means there’s a simple but powerful thing you can do as a family to not contribute to the epidemic issue. More on that at the end.

Photo from Food Empowerment Project

In 2001, various news sources revealed that children were being used as slaves or cheap labor in West African cocoa farms, where the majority of the world’s cocoa is birthed. Lawmakers in the U.S. tried to enact laws to require change, but the farthest they got was a voluntary protocol (the Harken-Engel Protocol, to be exact), signed by heads of major chocolate companies, to ask for the stop of child labor “as a matter of urgency.”

Well, this pretty-please request was more or less ignored, and more than ten years later, there are still over a million children working on cocoa farms with little more than the torn clothes on their backs. Their hands and faces are often sliced with machete scars, evidence of the main tool they use to cut down the cocoa from trees after shimmying up the trunk (and also used to split open the cocoa pod).

Child slavery is used in the chocolate industry. Don't turn a blind eye.
Photo from Mind This

Most of the children are also required to spray hazardous chemicals on the crops, where they ingest it into their lungs, and they are unable to attend school while they work, which is in violation of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Most of these children can’t read or write, they subsist on corn paste and bananas, and needless to say, they have never tasted the chocolate they help produce for our own families.

According to the website Grist, a 2011 Tulane University study found a “projected total of 819,921 children in Ivory Coast and 997,357 children in Ghana worked on cocoa-related activities” in 2007-2008.

The ILO calls the cocoa industry the worst form of child labor today. And these farms, mostly in Ghana and Ivory Coast, exist because of brands like Hershey, Nestle, Mars, and Cadbury—they all purchase cocoa from these farms, are all aware of their practices, and as of today, have chosen to do little about it.

What can we do?

Here’s the deal—as well-intentioned families who hold the majority of the world’s money (and if you can read English and are reading this blog, you’re probably in this demographic), we hold an incredible amount of power in our wallets. We simply need to put our dollars where our hearts beat and NOT BUY THIS CHOCOLATE.

I don’t use all-caps often. But I am here, because you guys, it doesn’t take much for us to make a massive dent in this worldwide catastrophe.

Chocolate is not an essential commodity for survival, so we can each absolutely afford brands that practice ethical standards from the crop to the store. It’s just a matter of knowing what those are.

What’s up with the Fair Trade label?

fair trade logos

I wrote about this already in my post about the coffee industry, and the same thing applies to chocolate. The main thing to know is that the “Fair Trade” label means the farmer was paid a fair price for his or her product, and in buying this chocolate, you as a consumer aren’t willingly participating in exploitation. And to my understanding, a farmer will not get this label if he or she isn’t using fair practices on their employees (such as low wages, dangerous conditions, or using child slaves).

Unfortunately, a farmer has to pay for this certification, and at thousands of dollars, many can’t afford this.

Look for a short supply chain

A great option is to look for the shortest supply chain possible, which means there are few steps between the farmer and the grocery aisle. Look for verbiage like “Direct Trade” and “Bean to Bar.” These chocolatiers often travel directly to the farms, develop a relationship with the farmers, and therefore both get the top-tiered choice in beans and are given a reasonable price—which directly goes to farm operations.

Stick to the Americas and/or organic

An easy-ish thing to do is to stick to chocolate from Central and South America. Organic chocolate is almost exclusively grown in Central and South America, where slavery isn’t an issue. If the label is missing its location origin, ‘organic’ should hopefully mean ethically sourced and farmed. I can’t 100% guarantee that, of course, but it’s a start.

So, to sum up: the best chocolate to look for is a brand with the certified Fair Trade label, plus verbiage like “bean to bar,” plus organic, plus originating in Central or South America.

So, is that it?

Not quite. Also keep in mind that those major chocolate brands also pump their candies full of GMOs, fake emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, and other chemicals—at least in the U.S. I can’t speak for every country, of course, but in my travels, I can attest that chocolate tastes better outside of America. In fact, certain well-known chocolates in the U.S. must be labeled “chocolate candy” in other countries, because it’s not considered real chocolate elsewhere.


Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified label to better ensure your chocolate isn’t icky.

chocolate bar
Photo source

I guess this means we should cancel trick-or-treating and eat organic apples while watching depressing documentaries, eh?

I’m a realist, and I get that many of us still want to take our kids trick-or-treating (or rather, our kids would be heartbroken to ban the holiday). Here’s what we can do.

1. Tell your kids the truth.

You don’t need to go into graphic detail, but I think it’s perfectly legit to tell your kids that as a family, you can’t, in good conscience, buy mainstream chocolate because those companies use kids just like them to work really hard for almost no money, that they often get hurt, and that they can’t go to school because of chocolate.

Let’s change the status quo by impassioning their generation to practice ethical buying now.

2. Don’t buy chocolate from mainstream brands.

Choose to no longer buy chocolate from companies like Nestle, Hershey, Mars, and Cadbury, so that they get the message that we are NOT okay with forced child labor.

3. Buy from awesome companies.

There are more and more chocolatiers that are selling ethically-made chocolate—let’s support them. Yes, it costs more. So we buy less. It’s a small price to pay for doing right.

hot chocolate

Good Halloween treats

Chocolate minis from Equal Exchange (and their Halloween Kit) | find on Amazon

Bug Bites squares from Endangered Species Chocolate  | find on Amazon

halloween milk chocolate pumpkin balls

Chocolate pumpkin balls (and other Halloween treats) from Natural Candy Store—lots of allergen-free options!

Non-chocolate options:


TruJoy Fruit Chews on Thrive Market (sign up for an annual membership and get a 6-pack of primal dark chocolate almond bars, free!)

yum earth halloween lollipops
YumEarth Organic Lollipops and Candy Drops (these are great for Easter eggs, too…)

yum earth halloween gummy bears

YumEarth Gummy Bears and Gummy Worms (plus a Halloween-specific mix bag)


Halloween mix bag from Natural Candy Store (allergen-free!)

Chocolate doesn’t end on Halloween, of course—here’s a list of reputable chocolatiers for all your chocolate snacking, drinking, and baking needs.

Great chocolate companies

thrive market chocolate

Lots of these brands are on Thrive Market, a sort of Costco-like membership site, but for ethical, often healthier brands. I’m a member, and I can get brands that normally cost me more at regular grocery store prices—including chocolate like Alter Eco, Endangered Species, Enjoy Life, Taza, and Theo! If you’re interested, sign up here and you’ll get a free 6-pack of primal dark chocolate almond bars.


(And of course, check out all our favorite brands and shops on our Ethical Shopping Guide.)

And finally…

You may not feel rich, but compared to the rest of the world, you probably are. Really really. And you can make a major difference in the world simply by directing your money to the right sources. We’re at the beginning of the chocolate-heavy holiday season… we have plenty of time to purchase well.

For further reading, my friend Kristen Howerton has done a fabulous job going in to more detail of the chocolate slavery issue.

The documentary The Dark Side of Chocolate is currently available on YouTube for free, and while it’s not graphic, it might be emotionally disturbing for kids. Watch first before showing your children, but make a point to watch it yourself—it’s haunting.

Many of the comments below are chock-full of helpful information, and they also stir conversation about important nuances in this whole thing (But what if child labor is still supporting a family in need?; What about stores like Trader Joe’s and Costco?, etc.). I can’t personally vouch for what everyone’s suggesting, but please consider your valuable input part of this important discussion!

Small ways we can affect the unethical chocolate industry (from The Art of Simple).

A few affiliate links are used here, which means at no extra cost to you, making a purchase by clicking these links helps support this site. Thanks!

Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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  1. Suzanne L. says:

    I haven’t looked into Halloween-size chocolate bars yet (I may go with something non-chocolate after this), but my favorite regular bars are by Chocolove (which seems to be responsible, though their explanation seemed a bit vagueo me) and Seattle Chocolates, which claims to be fair trade.

  2. Thank you for this post. I was not unaware of it as I had read similar posts at Rage Against the Minivan in years past, and I usually buy Green and Black’s chocolate bars for myself, but it’s one of those issues I’m ashamed to say I try not to think about when my kids ask for Hershey’s. We’re getting better about our food choices, one thing at a time, so I thank you for making me think about this again and inspiring me to talk to my kids about it.

  3. Oh my goodness, this breaks my heart. I had no idea! Thank you for sharing this information. We live just a couple blocks from the Theo Chocolate Factory in Seattle! We’ll make sure to buy our sweet treats from them from now on! xo

  4. Wow. I had heard about this a while back and am now ready to do something about it. What about cocoa powder? Baker’s unsweetened chocolate? Central Market organic chocolate bars? I love Enjoy Life’s chips and chunks! I have a soy allergy so the above mentioned brands are soy free. I was so excited to find the Central Market organic bars were soy free. So now, I need to find chocolate that is fair trade AND soy free. Anyone have suggestions?

  5. I just wanted to say what an excellent article this is! I found it through a link by Do a Little Good, another social good blog I follow. The fact that so many businesses are this ignorant to where they are sourcing their goods drives me mad. I just did a post on the palm oil industry and it angered me but not as much as this one when they use little children as slave labor. What is so cool is that by using our voice like this to call out injustice, change happens. I just got a letter from General Mills about their palm oil plans for the future. Look how many people tweeted and shared this post. Congratulations on making a difference! I look forward to following your blog! 🙂 nicole

  6. Hi Tish,

    Do you know if Sweet Moose is an okay brand? It says that it’s organic fair trade, and it is certified organic, but I’m not seeing the Fair Trade label on it. Can you shed some light on this?

  7. Does anyone know about UTZ Certified products? Are they like Fairtrade? Ikea’s chocolate is UTZ Certified.

  8. Um, I’m sorry, but this isn’t quite accurate. My dad has been at the fore-front of the chocolate industry for almost 30 years. He has spent more time out of the country than in, visiting the suppliers, working with them, and their governments, to ensure better crops raised in a better way. He has gone down to countless South American farms, with USAID, to work with the growers.

    My dad works with smaller growers, teaching them how to grow a better cacao crop, teaching them what they need to do to get a better flavor, a higher quality bean. And if they do those things, the company he works for contracts to buy from them. One of the requirements is no pesticides, and I doubt USAID would be okay with child labor.

    My dad works for Mars, and while the quality of their nugat/carmel has changed recently, the quality of their chocolate has not.

  9. Wow, I had no idea, thank you for educating me. I haven’t purchased chocolate from a major company in years because I just didn’t like the taste and prefer to buy local-made goods anyway (which, living in Northern California, isn’t hard to do. ) I will be a more informed shopper from now on!

  10. If you have a phone that uses apps, you can go to and download an app for you phone. When you shop, you can scan the products and see how they rate for using slaves for production. A = no slaves D = way too many. A friend of mine found that Hanes does not use slaves and their product is only slightly more expensive than what they were buying. Easy switch.

  11. Kellie Budge says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this post. This has been weighing heavy on my mind this Halloween season and you’ve pointed out some great alternatives!

  12. Do you have any resources or recommendations for buying fair trade toys?

  13. A small, ethical chocolate company recently came to my attention. At Eating Evolved, they produce an assortment of chocolate products that are Fairtrade, non-GMO, soy-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, and refined sugar-free! Some of their products do contain nuts.

  14. I didn’t have time to read throw every post… how about Fearless chocolate?

  15. dmonhiro says:

    Personally, I just don’t care about ethical consumerism.

  16. I’m glad you mentioned Askinosie Chocolate. Their products are delicious & fairly easy to find where I live in the midwest (Kansas/Oklahoma/Arkansas/Missouri area). I used to work down the street from their chocolate factory in Springfield & often saw the owner in our coffee shop. Not only does he have a great business, he is a genuinely nice man, and he has a brilliant mind for business. Go Askinosie!

  17. Jo from Guernsey says:

    This interesting blog just popped into my email today and wow 200 comments already! (apologies if I say something already said but I haven’t read all 200..) I started doing google research on chocolate as soon as I read this 🙂 And was pleased to see the stand lindt seem to genuinely take on the issue, seeing as personally I think that swiss chocolate is the best I’ve had. So now I’m happy to eat it! I am part of my local NCT branch and the NCT as a whole are boycotting Nestle because they have been aggressively marketing baby formula in places where there isn’t clean water and even offering medical equipment to hospitals if the nurses push the formula on the mothers, unfortunately the baby can get sick from the unclean water used or the mother can’t afford more powder and often by this time the mothers own milk has dried up. This is the only reference to Nestle I have heard so it was interesting and sad to hear of this additional unethical issue that they are involved with. With regard to Halloween I always wonder why in America the fancy dress is usually non sinister where as in the UK fancy dress is expected to be scary, monsters, witches, lots of blood etc. I have never celebrated halloween because of the much more sinister aspect of it within the UK, it seems to be much different and MUCH bigger in America too. Right! I will stop rambling now! Thanks for taking the time to read this. Enjoy the holidays! I now have a craving for lindt……..

  18. I honestly wasn’t aware of the child slavery issues surrounding chocolate. We are handing out oranges painted like jack-o-lanterns this year, and because my son is extremely allergic to many artificial dyes we will probably trade most of his candy for a toy. Poor kid, chocolate is one of the few candies he can safely eat! We already buy Costco’s chocolate chips for baking and I rarely buy other chocolate because nobody in my family really cares for it except me, and I usually buy Lindt for my occasional treats. I boycott Nestle because of some of their other overseas practices (mainly concerning infant formula) and I have sent them feedback letting them know that. It’s daunting though trying to be a responsible consumer and really using our consumer power for good. So many companies are behaving in terrible ways and it’s impossible to research everything we spend our money on, so depressing sometimes.

  19. We like Guittard chocolate chips (especially the dark chocolate – oh my!) – not much info on their packaging, but their website had lots of info about their bean-to-bar practices – fair trade, sustainable agriculture, etc.

  20. Nancy Wagner says:

    When my daughter was in Nicaragua on a Social Justice learning trip a few years back, they visited “sweat shops” and had the opportunity to talk with the women working in them. The message they were given was this: Do NOT boycott our products as we will then not have jobs. Instead, please write thoughtful, well written letters to the CEO’s of the companies who own or are supplied by these shops explaining why you believe this is unethical and immoral treatment of workers and to expound upon that theme based upon what you’ve seen. They made a valid point.

  21. Hey, Tsh,

    Thank you so very much for this. Here’s what we are doing in light of this post …

    1. We read the post through with our kids (boys ages 5 and 12) and then as a family we prayed (when my 5yo asked that we would). We prayed for those children, for change and for awareness that leads to a movement.

    2. We sent out an email to friends whom we feel will take this seriously with a link to this post and a little pep-talk from us. (50 friends … and a little “if each of you tell two friends and they tell two friends … ” comment at the end.

    3. We are making little info-notes to take with us trick-or-treating. The note will contain the link to this post and a bullet-pointed explanation as to what is happening in the chocolate industry. We’ll accept the chocolate if someone gives it (out of respect) but want to inform them as well. Then we’ll toss the chocolate out of principle.

    4. My 5yo thought of this one – we are going to make little bags with that note and some non-chocolate treats like the organic lollies and pencils or something and bring them door-to-door before Halloween so people can be forewarned.

    5. We’ll keep praying.

    6. We are buying from this list.

    Thanks so much for this post … oh and for Organized Simplicity! That book!
    ~ Patty

  22. Thank you for this post! So often people provide information on this problem without adding practical alternatives. Including the ethical brand information made this post both convicting and empowering!

  23. Gina Comer says:

    Great article! Here’s a link to our local chocolatiers (spell check corrected to cockatoo 😉 ) Wonderful chocolate made the right way. Blessings!

  24. Gina Comer says:
  25. Ok, so since this eye-opening post and my spreading it to others, I have come back to comment one more time … here in the dusty back spaces of the internet where no one may actually find this, but just in case … There is a link on a UCSD site with a chart of brands of chocolate and which are organic, which fair trade, etc. Very helpful reference, so I thought I’d share … … Happy Chocolate Endulgences 🙂

  26. Does anyone know anything about Cargill? They are the parent company for Wilbur Chocolate which is semi-local to us and one of my husband’s favorites.

  27. thats really cool you should also go and check out this site to get some custom made candy

  28. Jennifer says:

    Anyone know of a place to purchase fair trade chocolate wholesale in either Canada or the U.S.? I had a company I would order from, but their supplier is no longer making the fair trade chocolate…and they were reasonably priced too. Thanks for any help you can give!

  29. “The ILO calls the cocoa industry the worst form of child labor today.”

    Not saying it isn’t bad but I disagree that it is the worst form of child labor today.

  30. Elizabeth says:

    So I guess I’m the bad guy here.. but what exactly does fair trade mean anyways? It sounds really cool and trendy.. which is what makes me suspicious. Does this mean the workers are paid a decent wage according to American salaries? Or a decent wage according to their own local salaries or a decent wage according to another country’s avg. salary? Get my point? Fair wages are very subjective and who makes the rules exactly?

  31. I do agree with all the great points in this article. This is how I live my life, voting with my dollar and supporting fair trade and organic.
    I would like to see a bit more about the effects this has on those societies. Child labour is wrong. Slave labour is wrong. But what happens to the families of these children when they loose their jobs? How do they eat? Where do they go? How do they live? Do they live at all?
    I would love to read more about programs that are helping these children and their families when the small amount of money they loose is gone and they have even less.
    What is being put into place to provide food, education, shelter and a better life for these villages, because I am sure the big brands are doing nothing to support the villages other then exploit the residents and pay them the base minimum. What happens when they are gone?
    It’s sad t think about.

  32. YES to this message. We don’t buy chocolate often in general, honestly, but if we do it is usually from Whole Foods or a small retailer.

    I did want to mention a side note, however, just for consideration. I noticed that your links for purchase are all to Amazon. In recent years, Amazon has come under fire for multiple unethical practices, so if you are interested in ethical shopping, it might be worth looking into. Among other things, their treatment of warehouse employees has been reported to be several shades of unacceptable. I’d definitely recommend getting some rockin’ chocolate…maybe just from local or consistently ethical outlets. Again, thanks for sharing this message!

  33. Charles Sinclair says:

    The examples of fair trade chocolates in this article were all not very ecological, individually wrapped, in tons of plastic.

  34. Hi, I read an article about child labor in the chocolate industry, so I got curious about my favorite brands. But I can’t find any info! Does anyone know about Baron choclatier, Ritter sport, or Milka? I don’t really know where/ how to look for ethical labor info for these brands. Thanks

  35. I’ve been buying Enjoy Life, but wasn’t 100% sure about the ethics. I guess it is a decent brand. I just discovered that Equal Exchange 70% chocolate is fair trade, organic, and not only free of allergens but not produced in a facility with them. (They’re comparable in price to Enjoy Life while being richer chocolate which I prefer). They don’t use salt or vanilla in their chocolate, which I find sad but I can always melt them down and add salt for bars if I want that. For baking them being salt free isn’t a huge deal.

    Whenever I am in springfield I like to enjoy an askinosie chocolate bar.

  36. what a bunch of bs. Make sure you give up your computer and ipad too, because Chinese slaves made it. Hypocrites.

  37. hi,
    nice post

  38. Tsh, thank you for this awesome list of resources! I found a brand that’s sold in a grocery store near my house– no excuse not to buy Fair Trade now 🙂

  39. Would it be right if I shared this blog on our website? We are an all natural, grass fed beef company and I know our customers would love to read this. It was very eye opening for me! Thank you!

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